LOS ANGELES -- Steve Lavin returned to UCLA on Saturday and was met with what can best be described as casual indifference.
No boos, no signs, no catcalls.
“Just another day at Pauley,’’ as Lavin aptly described it.
But the team that Lavin brought with him -- a team from the beastly Big East -- with all the muscle and might that being a Big East member implies?
That mattered to some folks, some very important folks.
“Any time an East Coast team comes to the West Coast, they try to bully you around,’’ UCLA forward Reeves Nelson said. “We don’t have any little sissies on this team. The term we used was they were going to try to punk us and we weren’t having that a little bit.’’
No, the Bruins took St. John’s first punch and then proceeded to return with some body blows of their own, gutting out the 66-59 victory at Pauley Pavilion.
The loss ruined Lavin’s coming home party and more, put a dent into the Red Storm’s run. Lavin and his staff sported sneakers with their suits for the game, even though the Coaches vs. Cancer awareness push was over. The reason? They were 2-0 with sneakers on, with the signature win against Duke and a hard-earned win against Rutgers.
Now the sneakers will come off and so will the gloves. St. John’s is rewarded for its country-crisscrossing sojourn with a home game against Connecticut on Thursday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
This game won’t kill the Red Storm in the selection committee’s eyes. How many teams are willing to hopscotch the country in the middle of the arduous conference season? Not many. But a win would have been a huge boost to the St. John dossier.
“We thought this was a great chance to get a quality win against a good opponent,’’ said guard Dwight Hardy, who practically carried the Red Storm on his shoulders with 32 points. “But I don’t think many people play the sort of schedule that we played. It’s a shame we couldn’t get the win.’’
It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. This game was something of an aesthetic mess, featuring 38 fouls and 32 turnovers. UCLA attempted 41 free throws (33 in the second half) and St. John's countered with just seven. The Red Storm once led by as many as nine and the Bruins by as many as 10, but with all the sloppy play and stops, no one could find an offensive groove.
So naturally the game ended on an impossibly difficult offensive play.
With just three seconds on the shot clock and 6.7 on the game clock, Nelson took the inbounds pass and somehow swished an in-the-corner, off-balance 3-pointer with a hand in his face.
Prior to that, the Bruins had made only two of their first 11 3s.
He did and the Bruins scored a critical non-conference victory. UCLA is 16-7 but its résumé is pretty thin.
There was a big win against BYU early and not much else to hang your hat on out of conference. More problematic is the watered down Pac-10 won’t do much to bolster the Bruins’ middling RPI of 47.
“This was like an NCAA Tournament game,’’ UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “They allowed us to play. It was very physical, the kind of game where you’re not going to get any calls. But it’s big for us because of where we are. It’s February 5.’’
And the fact is, the product that is UCLA basketball on Feb. 5 is a heckuva lot better than the product that was UCLA basketball back on Dec. 5.
That was the day that the Bruins lost to Montana, the spoiled cherry on top of a four-game skid that had everyone wondering if Howland had jumped the shark at Westwood.
Since then the Bruins have won 13 of 16, 7 of their past 8, three in a row and it’s not out of the question that UCLA could sneak up and win the Pac-10.
“That was always one of our goals,’’ Smith said.
In a city where the spotlights shine the brightest, UCLA has managed to do the impossible: get better right underneath everyone’s nose. This was always going to take time. The Bruins don’t have a senior on their roster. But patience is a lost virtue in sports. With each passing season, the glimmer of those three consecutive Final Four appearances has faded.
Now it seems that patience is being rewarded.
They are not yet playing the sort of stingy defense that Howland is known for, but the Bruins are getting better. In those 13 victories, they’ve held six opponents under 60 points and eight under 70.
Smith, a freshman, has learned to assert his big body in the low post. Where once he would have settled for layups, he is now throwing down dunks with authority. The undersized Red Storm could do nothing to contain his girth or his strength as he finished with 19 points and eight boards.
The naysayers will say that the Bruins merely beat a middle-of-the-pack Big East team on their homecourt.
Those whose opinions matter, however, the ones that put on the uniforms see it a little differently.
The East Coast bully wound up getting pushed around.